Volume 20, No. 12

 

Pension & Other Benefit Plans: A Look Ahead:  Investors in firms with defined benefit pension plans always face the risk of suddenly being pushed farther back in line when it comes to being served their returns. Variability in plan assets and variability in benefit plan obligations are the reason: poor asset returns coupled with sinking interest rates always spell tough times for defined benefit plan funding. In that regard, this year’s asset returns combined with the Fed’s "Operation Twist" add up to "Operation Agony" for defined benefit pension plans. If trends continue along their current path, firms that may have anticipated moving to more realistic pension accounting might forego that decision: it could just be too painful.

Pensions aren’t the only kind of benefit plan affected by Operation Twist. Other postemployment benefit (OPEB) plans share much the same accounting model as pensions, including the calculation of a projected benefit obligation that similarly incorporates a discount rate - one that will also be affected by Operation Twist. The net OPEB obligations were even bigger than pension obligations at the end of 2010, and promise to be even bigger yet in 2011. Investors perceive them as less threatening than pension obligations because they don’t require funding. Strangely, there are a number of firms that are recognizing income from these benefit plans - without ever creating a dime of cash for investors.

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